Visiting a terminally ill comrade
Earlier this week I had the opportunity to see a friend and comrade, badly weakened by a terminal illness, for the first time in several months. Not much older than my own mother, S. is now in hospice care and likely will not live for much longer. When I visited, painkilling drugs had taken her out of a lucid state and aside from far too short moment of simple recognition, her eyes were closed. I held her hand as she lay there, breathing heavily, the orange glow of sunset fading through the venetian blinds behind me.
Last September I visited her in a hospital. I'd only gotten to know her the previous summer when she decided to join Solidarity at the encouragement of her friend in Atlanta, an old comrade of hers from when they both held membership in the Socialist Workers Party. On a few subsequent trips to New York and occasional phone calls, I got to know her – only a little – as a dedicated, humble, in the trenches fighter. She'd been an early enthusiastic supporter of Cynthia McKinney's campaign for president, and constantly wrestled with the most intelligent way of proceeding in the face of challenges: Obama's historic presidential candidacy, which captured the excitement of millions; the tough challenges of constructing a progressive political alternative in the US; Ralph Nader throwing his own hat in the ring.
Although it was mainly through keeping up with this shared political work that we became friends, on that September day I was extremely moved by our more personal – but still thoroughly political – conversation. Although she was as cheerful and compassionate as ever, S. knew the chances of surviving her illness were very slim. She apologized for seeming rude and ill-prepared a few weeks before when she spoke at a summer conference co-sponsored by Solidarity and a number of other organizations. Earlier that day she'd slipped and her back was in extreme pain, she explained. In any case, she went on, the end would ultimately come.
With no expectation of any afterlife, approaching death was instead an opportunity to make amends with people with whom she'd lost touch or crossed, to reflect on her life, and to keep fighting. Fighting the illness, and fighting for justice, and fighting for a socialist alternative. She hoped to document and write up her experiences with treatment as an eyewitness account of the broken health care system. We also spoke about her experience working in alternative media in Pittsburgh during the 1970s, of joining the Communist Party, and her commitment to anti-racism. I can only approximate what was really one of the most touching conversations I can remember.
I first thought about death in the movement in a serious way several years ago when I learned about another comrade who had died – somebody I hadn't known personally. It happened this was just a few months after the passing of my own grandfather. The emotional bond of camaraderie is still something that I cannot describe in words; but in any case I was shaken by this news and it unleashed unshed tears, almost more than for my own blood relative! At least part of this wave of emotion was in the revelation of how profound and grave is our shared task of international revolution, the defeat of all oppression. How many people have lived and died in the last century alone with these same ideals resonating through the fiber of their being? There are the climactic moments when millions have put their bodies on the line in bloody clashes between the forces of revolution and reaction, millions more slaughtered under fascism and military dictatorship. But in between, all of the now-silenced lives of the rank and file: working class feminists, union militants, peasants and sharecroppers, tenant organizers, anti-racist fighters, cultural radicals, and so many more. People I never knew and will never know, but we share something.
Occasionally – not often enough – I upload back issues of Against the Current to this website. The magazine, as often as not, ends with at least one "in memoriam" dedication to a fallen fighter in our cause. It has made me much more aware of the inevitability of my own demise. The serenity with which S. described her coming death was a real lesson in how to fully accept mortality as the final chapter in our vitality.
I've had the enormous privilege of knowing some of the most amazing people through our common connection to the left. In particular, with the many cross-generational relationships, I think I'm saddened far more by the thought of losing these valuable friendships than I am with my own death…
Just a few thoughts inspired by a visit to a friend I did not get to know well enough. Your legacy will live on in all those who struggle for justice.